Jeff Kohnstamm, president of RLK and Company

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Shred Hood: It looked like it was going to be a great season in October but then we got all that rain and now it’s looking pretty bare. How’s business?

Jeff Kohnstamm: Last Saturday the parking lot was full. But business has been off a little bit. Every five to seven years we get low snow levels, and it’s often rather benign weather, like today’s a perfect example. It’s frighteningly nice outside. We’re really reliable at Timberline for getting snow, but this year we’re about 50 percent of normal, and the forecast isn’t looking too good for the rest of December. The guys do a great job of getting parks together and grooming the snow and keeping what snow we do have in good shape. But we’ll primarily be on the upper mountain.

Does it put pressure on you when Skibowl can't open, and you have all those Fusion Pass holders?

Season pass sales have been really strong, and people buy Fusion passes to ski both Timberline and Skibowl. And Skibowl just has a few rope tows running. What we will do over the holidays is utilize both areas for parking and shuttle people as well.

Speaking of parking and transportation, is there any news with that?

One thing all of the ski areas and businesses on the mountain are excited about is putting a group together that would be a local, nonprofit or quasi-governmental agency that would oversee transportation on the mountain. Whether that turns into a gondola from Government Camp to Timberline or another parking lot at the bottom of Molly’s, so be it. But we really want to put our effort into the whole transportation system, from Hood River all the way to Sandy, all the way around the mountain. We’re going to work with the other ski areas and the counties and ODOT, and try to come up with something that works well for everyone.

The number one vote-getter in the multi-modal planning effort was the aerial tram. People really want that, don’t they?

They do. It was going to be left off the list, but it was the most popular project on there. People fear that it seems a bit audacious. But it isn’t that big a project. The biggest challenge is the transportation infrastructure at the bottom of the tram, and how it interfaces with the community and the roadways. Really, the tram itself is probably a $15 million piece of machinery. That’s not a ridiculous amount of money when you’re talking transportation and roads.

They’re spending more than that on the rock blasting project down on 26.

Great example. So relative to all of that, I think it’s very doable. We don’t know exactly what it will be, whether it’s a private effort or a public-private partnership, but we want to examine all the options. We will probably hire someone to help us with the feasibility for us. But now is the time because the momentum is a strong as it’s ever been, with the Forest Service and ODOT and the counties.

The right of way for the tram line passes through property that Meadows is expected to get from the Forest Service as part of a land swap. Has that created complications? How are you guys dealing with that?

It has slightly complicated things. We all worked together to get that 2009 Mt. Hood Wilderness Bill passed, which included the land swap. We  also worked together on an option for an easement that would allow RLK and Company to build a gondola through that property.

And is Meadows in agreement on that?

We don’t have a document signed but we have agreed on all the salient terms. There’s just a lot of moving parts and a lot of uncertainty. But we’re pretty much there.

Are you looking at a joint venture with Skibowl for the tram?

Not necessarily. We’re not sure. We have agreed in the past that if the gondola goes from Government Camp to Timberline then RLK and Company would operate it. How the ownership thing breaks down, we don’t know yet. It could be 100 percent private RLK and Company, we could seek some transportation grants, it could be a nonprofit. We’re not exactly sure.

Of course 60 years ago, there was an aerial link between Government Camp and Timberline Lodge.

Right, the old bus.

It was just too bad that it was the wrong technology.

Well, that’s part of it. It was certainly the wrong technology. It could only transport 60 people an hour — if things went well. That just doesn’t do it. The other thing is that it was a competing enterprise. It was before RLK and Company started operating Timberline, and the different groups weren’t working together, they were competing with each other.

A lot of moving parts, like you say. But I haven’t heard a skier or snowboarder say they don’t like the idea of a tram.

Not only would it allow you to ski the two areas [Timberline and Skibowl] as one or close, it would also allow people to be pedestrian oriented in Government Camp. People could leave their cars in Government Camp and move around the mountain without getting in your car. That will take a lot of cars off the road and improve the experience for everyone.

The idea is to allow the busy traffic on Highway 26 that isn’t local to move through the community, and allow the local traffic to avoid getting tangled up on Highway 26. 26 is a huge trucking route and a gateway to Central Oregon with traffic that has nothing to do with the mountain at all. But when you add them all together on certain days it just gets clogged up and it can stay that way for hours.

It can get pretty bad.

It’s interesting. People will sit on I-5 in Portland five days a week, morning and evening. But there are 34 days when it can potentially back up. We’ve counted them. But that’s less than 10 percent of the year. In Portland it’s five days a week, 52 weeks of the year. But it’s unacceptable on the mountain, because you’re on the mountain and you don’t expect to be stuck in a traffic jam. It’s an interesting psychology.

A new tram would be an international draw, wouldn’t it?

It could be a big difference maker, both for getting around and notoriety. It could be pretty cool.

They’ve got an amazing tram up in Whistler-Blackcomb.

That’s an interesting conveyance. They’ve got one like it in Kitzbuhel in Austria that I’ve ridden - I haven’t been to the one in Whistler. But it’s called a 3S, and it has two track cables and a tow cable. It allows for enormous spans, to go thousands of feet over canyons and stuff like that. That wouldn’t be the technology we would use. We would probably use a standard, eight-passenger gondola. It’s quite a bit more straightforward and a lot less expensive than a big contraption like that.

A contraption like that could go over White River Canyon to Vista Ridge.

It could. It would be pretty cool. And there is a utility corridor that already goes through White River Canyon, because Mt. Hood Meadows’ power comes from the bottom of Molly’s. That utility corridor was purposefully left out of the wilderness act, when that all turned to wilderness in 2009. But a project like that would be a big deal. You’re talking about maybe $100 million. There’s some ridges there, it’s a long span. You would have an enormous battle with the preservationist community. A lot of people have bought off on gondola from Timberline to Government Camp, but going over White River Canyon is a whole different deal. It would be nice to dream about, but I think that’s about as far as we’ll go.

Even doing mountain bike trails can become a big deal, because people love Mount Hood, and they love it in different ways.

That’s true. You know what, our theory, and I will go to my grave thinking it’s the right thing to do, is that as long as it’s an appropriate alpine activity, it fits into the mold of why Timberline was built. Timberline was built for outdoor recreation, and back when Timberline was built in 37, the notion they had was skiing, climbing and horseback riding. Roosevelt even said it when he was on the terrace of the lodge, that we don’t know what recreation is going to look like in the future but we think it is important to give citizens the opportunity to be out on the landscape recreating. It’s good for them, it’s good for the economy. As long as it’s an appropriate alpine activity. To me it wouldn’t make sense to have a Ferris wheel or a water park. But mountain biking is clearly an appropriate alpine activity. And it would be managed. It would have things like parking, bathroom facilities, garbage removal…

I think this is the right place for mountain biking. Some people think it does not fit with the vision for Timberline Lodge, but I just disagree. It think that’s a form of almost recreational elitism, to say one thing is appropriate and another thing isn’t. As long as it’s alpine-appropriate, that’s what makes sense.

It could add to a summer scene that has become quite the draw.

It’s interesting. If you go to the Portland airport and look for skis and ski boots, you’ll see a lot more in July than in the rest of the year. That’s because people come from everywhere to train on Palmer in the summer. In the winter we have different markets. It’s more regional and local. People aren’t necessarily taking airplanes to come ski in Oregon. We would like to see more of them but there’s a lot of competition there. But in the summertime, everyone who makes it to a certain level of skiing or snowboarding at some point has trained at Timberline, especially when they are younger. Once they get big they are off to fancier places, but it is a great place to train for people who are serious. It’s close to Portland and more affordable than South America or Europe. It’s a nice little niche we have.

It’s quite an operation to keep the season going.

It takes a lot. we have more snow cats for grooming and terrain park preparation in summer than we do in winter. There’s just a lot going on.

And how about you? You’re obviously a skier. Are you a climber as well? What are the things you like to do on Mount Hood?

Well I like to fly fish a lot. And I like to golf. And I like to ski obviously. But that gives me as much gear as I need. I’m not much of a climber. I’ve climbed Mount Hood before, skied off the summit. I rock-climbed when I was in high school. But that’s just not my thing. I skin up sometimes, I like telemarking, I do that too. And I cross country ski for exercise, down at my cabin.

Well you were pretty much raised up here, weren’t you?

Yeah, we had a room at the lodge when I was a kid. My brothers and I were in one room and my parents were in the next. In the mid-80s we built a cabin and moved out of the lodge. But we always went to school in Portland.

Anything else our readers should know about what’s going on at Timberline?

Not really. We love Timberline, we love being up here. And if people ever have any questions or issues, they should feel free to ask anyone who works here for help. I am really proud of our crew; we’ve got great managers, smart people who are real dedicated to Timberline. 

And pray for snow. But don’t be daunted. Even when we don’t have as much snow as usual it’s still pretty nice up here.

Definitely pretty nice today.

Sure is.

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